The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's new music director, Yuri Temirkanov, is finally back on the podium after an absence of several months (the curse of modern day, jet-setting conductors), and the wait has been worth it. Last evening at Meyerhoff Hall, he offered a meaty program that found him in penetrating form.
The concert opened with one of the most indelible works of American music, "The Unanswered Question" by Charles Ives. Dating from 1906, the piece sounds as fresh and challenging as almost anything written since.
While strings softly play gentle, comforting, hymn-like chords, a single trumpet poses a question that a dissonant group of woodwinds tries to answer.
Ives had in mind humankind's eternal search for the meaning of existence; here, the trumpet's question begged another, more mundane one: Why do so many people invariably have to cough during soft music? The hackers nearly drowned the strings' exquisitely subtle playing.
Temirkanov molded the piece with great delicacy; the pondering, off-stage trumpet, played by Don Tison, could have used a little more gleaming tone; the winds, located balcony level, chattered away effectively.
More philosophical questions were posed at the end of the program in Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony, which, rightly or wrongly, is widely viewed as one of the composer's most autobiographical creations. In the outer movements, he seems to be asking all about life, suffering, love, disappointment; like Ives, he doesn't really find a satisfying answer.
Temirkanov probed these matters with a keen grasp of the score's interior drama. He gave passionate outbursts tremendous force, yet never let them go over the top; he tapped the special charm of the second movement's would-be waltz and let the subsequent march build up terrific steam. Ignoring the unwelcome applause after that march, the conductor maintained the expressive intensity right through to the final, resignation-filled pages.
The brass became overbearing in places; otherwise, Temirkanov's control of his forces was superb. The strings were lush and vivid; beautifully detailed solos emerged from the woodwind section.
The evening also held Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3, which Alexander Toradze was born to play. Its pugilistic passages posed no challenge for his mighty, accurate fingers.
He did not slight the concerto's lyrical side; there was a good deal of poetic phrasing in between the onslaughts. The visceral performance, smartly backed by conductor and orchestra, also posed one more question: How can Toradze do so much bouncing up and down without falling off the piano bench?
The concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. today, the Tchaikovsky symphony only at 11 a.m. tomorrow. Call 410-783-8000.